The people who know it well call it hell, a combat zone, a "meat grinder," but to strangers of the program, IB is an enigma.
Seven International Baccalaureate students from Hillsborough High, King High, Robinson High and Palm Harbor University High sat down with tb-two* and our friends at From the Corps, the Tampa Mayor's Youth Corps cable television show, to discuss the perils and pluses of the program, as well as perpetuate some stereotypes and debunk some myths.
In the dappled sunlight of a Hillsborough High courtyard where we met for our chat recently after school, the students immediately make it apparent that IB is not for the weak — one claims to have stayed awake for 52 hours straight during his junior year — they repeatedly emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic and time management. Natural smarts might help, but alone they're not enough; a persevering willpower is crucial to earning the IB diploma.
"You actually have to care about academics," Robinson High senior Madi McVicker says.
During junior and senior year, the official years of the IB Diploma Program, students must complete various Internal Assessments, which students regard as the biggest "sleep stealers," and a 4,000-word research paper, the Extended Essay.
At most schools, junior year comes with a warning label only Dante could have written ("Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"), but students complain that they're misled as to which year is really hardest.
"They lied to us," Palm Harbor University High senior Nicole Platti says, half-joking about the stigma that junior year is the most grueling. "It just keeps getting worse."
An aspect of IB that many outsiders overlook is the special social dynamic the program fosters.
Although most of the panelists had not met one another, they quickly found common ground commiserating about SAT scores, IAs and sleep deprivation. Millions of students around the globe suffer through the same rigorous work, so it's easy for IB strangers to connect with one another.
"Automatically we're like distant cousins," Aliasger Ezzi, a King High senior.
Also, most schools only admit 150 students to each graduating class, and that number dwindles closer to 100 by graduation, so IB communities are much smaller than typical high school classes. This means that they are tight-knit and serve as important support systems for students, but that can lead to competitiveness and TMI, too.
"There's so much competition it's ridiculous," Platti says. "It's too much."
Senior Ben Muschol claims that competition isn't too cutthroat, pointing out that Hillsborough High's valedictorian and salutatorian are best friends, but complains that in IB "You know too much about everyone's life."
"It's really like a soap opera," Ezzi adds.
On the social front, there are many stereotypes about IB students.
King High freshman Keshav Shah says that the masses think they are "only devoted to academics, which is not true."
Hillsborough High sophomore Lumiere Rostick argues that having somewhat of a social life is imperative to surviving IB.
"Make friends," she advises incoming students. "You need people to go through it with you."
Rostick also says she faced another stereotype when she decided to apply to the program: "(They) ask me if being in IB is like renouncing my blackness." Rostick explains that's not the case; she's proud of her culture.
Upon weighing the sacrifices — loss of sleep, after-school jobs, good health, going out on the weekends, meals, spare time — and the rewards — well-rounded education, time management, work ethic, in-depth understanding of literature, friends, a solid support system — the panelists agreed IB was worth it. But they emphasize it is important to keep things in perspective to maintain sanity.
"Not every project is the biggest thing in the world," says Ezzi.
Platti offers another suggestion.
"Don't take naps. It puts you on a bad cycle of staying up late."
Katie Lamont, East Lake High/SPC; Hannah Elliott, Robinson High; and William Harvey, King High also contributed to this report.